As Alexandra began her lecture, I recalled our first meeting when I was still at the National Geographic Society as the director of photography. Robert Pledge, the co-founder and president of Contact Press Images, had been touting her to me as a candidate for assignments based on her photographic skills and her interest in covering events in the Middle East. She was one of the newest members of the agency at the time as was already doing photojournalism assignments for other publications, including Time and The New York Times Sunday magazine. I was able to give her an initial assignment shortly thereafter to do a story on the Palestinians living in Gaza and that began a string of assignments that has led inexorably to the book.
Known among fellow photographers for her sense of color and an ability to create layers of information within a frame, Alexandra described her images as a blend of moments of great action and “those quiet moments which are some of the greatest joys of my work.” As for her aesthetic sense, she acknowledges that “I love layers in my photos; stuff coming in from the edges that reflects the chaos of everyday life.” She attributes some of her visual inspiration to a love of a music, “something that teaches me much about movement, light, and emotion.” She also credits her late father, filmmaker Aram Avakian, as her early teacher, giving her instruction in photography as a young girl. Alexandra’s travels throughout the Middle East have included extended stays in Gaza and the West Bank as well as trips to other conflict zones such as the Caucuses, Somalia, and Sudan. In talking about her motivations as a journalist, she mentions her own family’s story as Armenians from Iran who fled famine, persecution, disease, political terror, and genocide to come to the United States and how that history has echoed in her work over the past two decades.
Driven by a quest to show the totality of the lives of her subjects, Alexandra has found beauty in unlikely places like Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza or the West Bank where children play amongst the rubble created by conflict. Her work speaks to the quest to move beyond surface interpretations by living and spending the time to gain access to the intimacies of her subjects‘ lives. Fruits of that work can be seen in photographs as disparate as children laughing while playing beside a canal in Iran, or a Lebanese-American woman mowing her Dearborn front lawn or a woman and her daughter visiting a cemetery in Beirut on Martyr’s Day. These images speak to the investment of time made by a committed photojournalist to observe patiently and document in way that speaks to the truth of the situation being witnessed.
In looking at some of the assignments that have drawn her back repeatedly to places of great conflict and tension, she acknowledges both the responsibility to report accurately and fully and a desire to tell stories that move an audience to greater understanding of people who may otherwise be presented as stereotypes, either in the media or by political figures. I was struck by her answer to an audience member’s question about the lessons to be drawn from her coverage.
First, she said that she had a responsibility to document in a situation like the Somalia famine of the early 1990’s despite the danger and grimness so that “people never forget the things like the boy who died in front of me of starvation.” She also said that she had learned “people have so much more in common than they have differences.” “While it is true no one can compare pain, – everyone has their own kind of pain – all human beings want security, freedom of speech, freedom to work, and the ability to provide for basic human needs to be found in any family’s situation.”
Her observations regarded with such richness and complexity also do much to reduce the sense of “otherness” so often used by those in power to stir up animosities as a means of maintaining power. I was particularly struck by the fruits of her National Geographic assignment done to look at the lives of American Muslims in the wake of 2001’s terror attack. At a time when it was easy to play on fears spawned by the magnitude of the devastation, she and the National Geographic were making a concerted effort to show a more complete, nuanced picture. Her photos depict the impact of policy stemming from political processes and decisions, while also showing people trying to cope and live normally according to their own traditions and values. Such work is indispensable in times of crisis.
I also appreciated her answer to an audience member who questioned her about the role of images by provided by citizen journalists, as in the video footage of a young Iranian girl dying after being shot while attending a demonstration. Rather than expressing fear or dismay about possible competition, Alexandra said “I am very excited by the fact that citizen journalists can reveal human rights abuses with their work,” citing the images from recent demonstrations in Iran and western China as examples. “For me, the aesthetics matter less than revealing the situations needing to be shown. It is a very positive development.”
I think young photojournalists can learn a lot from Alexandra’s approach to her subjects and the skill with which she uses her sense of aesthetics to express moments in the lives of her subjects. I recommend her book as a good place to start.
(A Postscript - Alexandra kindly reminded me in an e-mail after initial publication about two salient facts I had omitted in this post inadvertently due to faulty memory on my part. Our first meeting was actually in 1988, when she was introduced to me by New York City photo agent and editor Woodfin Camp. Also, in 1994, David Alan Harvey came back from the annual Visa Pour l’ Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, extolling the virtues of Alexandra’s early work from Gaza. He thus played an important role in bringing Alexandra again to my attention and setting in motion a chain of events that led to her first photography assignment for National Geographic Magazine. I wanted to amend this post to reflect those two events.)